The Maharajah of Cooch Behar

India, 1891. Lord Frederic Hamilton, while on the staff of his brother-in-law, the Viceroy, was invited to take part in a five-week big game hunt organized by the Maharajah of Cooch Behar. It gave him the chance to escape the heat and humidity of Calcutta which, he thought, “could never be a really healthy place”.

A vintage postcard of the wharves on the Hooghly river at Calcutta, India.

The late Maharajah of Cooch Behar had had a long minority, the soil of his principality was very fertile and well-cultivated, and so efficiently was the little state administered by the British Resident that the Maharajah found himself at his majority the fortunate possessor of vast sums of ready money. The Government of India had erected him out of his surplus revenues a gigantic palace of red-brick, a singularly infelicitous building material for that burning climate. Nor can it be said that the English architect had been very successful in his elevation. He had apparently anticipated the design of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and had managed to produce a building even less satisfactory to the eye than that vast pile at the corner of Cromwell Road. He had also crowned his edifice with a great dome. The one practical feature of the building was that it was only one room thick, and that every room was protected by a broad double verandah on both sides. The direct rays of the sun were, therefore, powerless to penetrate to the interior, and with the double verandahs the faintest breath of air sent a draught through every room in the house.

We reached Cooch Behar after dark, and it was somewhat of a surprise to find the Maharajah and his entire family roller-skating in the great central domed hall of the palace, to the strains of a really excellent string band. The Maharajah having a great liking for European music, had a private orchestra of thirty-five natives who, under the skilled tuition of a Viennese conductor, had learned to play with all the fire and vim of one of those unapproachable Austrian bands, which were formerly (I emphasize the were) the delight of every foreigner in Vienna…… The whole scene was rather unexpected in the home of a native prince in the wilds of East Bengal.

The Maharajah had fixed on a great tract of jungle in Assam, over the frontier of India proper, as the field of operations for his big-game shoot of 1891, on account of the rhinoceros and buffaloes that frequented the swamps there. As he did not do things by halves, he had had a rough road made connecting Cooch Behar with his great camp, and had caused temporary bridges to be built over all the streams on the way. Owing to the convenient bamboo, this is fairly easy of achievement, for the bamboo is at the same time tough and pliable, and bamboo bridges, in spite of their flimsy appearance, can carry great weights, and can be run up in no time, and kindly nature furnishes in Bengal an endless supply of this adaptable building material……

It so happened that the Census of 1891 was taken whilst we were in camp, so I can give the exact number of retainers whom the Maharajah brought with him. It totalled 473, including mahouts and elephant-tenders, grooms, armourers, taxidermists, tailors, shoemakers, a native doctor and a dispenser, and boatmen, not to mention the Viennese conductor and the thirty-five members of the orchestra, cooks, bakers, and table-waiters. The Maharajah certainly did things on a grand scale.

Here, There and Everywhere, Lord Frederic Hamilton, Hodder and Stoughton, 1921.

Hamilton is such an entertaining writer on aspects of 19th century life that you can expect to see him back here from time to time.

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